Tag Archives: voir dire

No Way to Run a Justice System

Note: This piece is being simultaneously posted at autumninnewyork.net.

Not two years after moving to New York, the justice system turned its attention, randomly, I’m sure, to me by sending me a notice to report for jury duty. At the time, reporting would have conflicted with a business commitment, so I asked for, and received, an automatic deferral. I chose January 16 as my report date. Fate, of course, would inevitably intervene and an important business meeting was unavoidably scheduled for January 17.

That’s the beginning. When I wrote the first draft of this post, it was all minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow in the same excruciating detail as I experienced a wasted day-and-a-half of my life for no discernible purpose. Upon re-reading the draft, I realized it was boring, even to me, so I decided on another approach.

What was wrong with the process whereby I was called upon by the state to assist in the administration of justice for parties who had demanded a trial by jury, as guaranteed by law in appropriate cases? Just about everything. The process seemed like something from another time, a relic of the days when everything was done manually and the administrative process was a slave to established practice no matter how wasteful.

You are ordered to report, then after arrival in the Jury Assembly Room (452) are told that you may be there between one and three days. If you’ve already had a postponement, you can go down to Room 139 and make a pitch for further relief but if called while there you may be forced to return again for another stint. And the implication is that your chances down there are slim at best. So, I decide to take a chance and stay put. Mistake. I collect my Juror Questionnaire and fill it out. I foolishly think this is good because when the lawyers see it, they will immediately disqualify me and I can leave. Trial lawyers generally are extremely averse to having other lawyers on their juries.

I am eventually called with a group of 35 others to follow some lawyers to a courtroom where 10 are selected for voir dire, the questioning by counsel for the parties to determine if each individual can be “fair and impartial.” It is now apparent that the system is not designed for efficiently dealing with the group of prospective jurors. The lawyers are in charge now and they only collect the questionnaires from the first group of 10 prospects. They don’t know I’m here and they don’t care.

It turns out this is a personal injury case involving disputes about medical records, medical treatments, negligence and related issues. There are, we discover the next day, other lawyers in the group and a doctor as well. None will eventually serve on the jury, but it takes a full day and a half to determine that. The lawyers painstakingly, slowly, repetitively query the jury pool in groups of 10 to pick the final six jurors and two alternates. They are in no hurry and spend hours in the hallway reviewing questionnaires and negotiating over whom to select. The first group of 10 produced only 3 jurors. The second group, another 3, then a third group to get the two alternates.

I confess I was not a trial lawyer by experience, although I did litigate administrative and arbitration cases in my active legal career. Nevertheless, it did not take a lot of imagination to grasp that this process was designed for the benefit of the trial lawyers and gave little to no consideration to the jury pool that was stuck there for, potentially, three days just to settle on 8 people out of the pool of 35. And the trial itself, scheduled to start the following Tuesday, is estimated to take five days but “it could be longer if, for example, the judge has to hear motions in other matters.”

By way of example only, once a group is selected from the pool, the lawyers and all of the pool jurors in that group must return to the clerk’s office for processing out. It seems that every step in the process is calculated to consume more time and that no one, except some members of the jury pool, is an any hurry to move the process to conclusion.

On Day One, we arrive at 3:35 pm and it is finally time to question the second group of 10 prospects.

But, wait, we’d been told earlier that the stop time today was 4 pm. The attorneys inform us that since there is only 25 minutes left before the appointed end time, we’ll just knock off early. Report back tomorrow at 9:45. What? 9:45? What the hell kind of workday do these folks follow? Do they not understand that everyone in the jury pool has another life to pursue outside the jury selection process?

I approached the lawyers and explained who I was and that since I was pretty sure they would never select me, how about you just excuse me now? The answer was “no, we can’t control that and, besides, we might run out of prospects and want you on the jury anyway, but you can go try the clerk.” I rush downstairs and approach the clerk’s desk, only to hear her tell someone else, “once you’re in the pool, there is no way out.” So, no way out, even if the lawyers take three full days to finish selection.

I leave the courthouse and return home. I am uncertain whether I really heard that the start time tomorrow is 9:45 rather than the 8:45 the first day. So, I call the number on the yellow card we were instructed to collect that morning. A voice message, at 4:45 pm, says that the number is not part of the answering system and therefore no message can be left. “Goodbye.”

Let me cut to the end now. No point in prolonging the obvious. Suffice to say that I was never selected as a potential juror, never questioned and the lawyers finally chose the six jurors and two alternates. We then had to return to the clerk’s desk for final processing, a final speech by one of the clerks, and then … freedom. I bolt out of the courthouse to catch a cab to a business lunch that is going on without me.

A day and a half of monotonous, repetitious rehashing that could have been accomplished in less than half the time with the judicious use of some documents for prospective jurors to read, perhaps even in advance of coming to the courthouse. Turning over prospects to the control of the litigating lawyers means that the jurors’ interests may be completely disregarded if the lawyers are in no hurry to complete the process.

I well understand the need to assure that citizens do their duty as jurors in order to assure that litigants that want a trial by jury can have one. But I do not understand why the process is under the unsupervised control of the trial lawyers. I do not understand why the process seems to be the same as was used decades before modern technology became available. Much of the factual information painstakingly drawn from the pool members could have been collected in writing beforehand. If the trial lawyers were going to disqualify lawyers, doctors and other people in certain professions or who had experienced injuries similar to the one at issue in the case, all of that could have been ascertained in advance. Doing that would require systematic changes in the way the jury selection process works but it could be done if efficiency were regarded as relevant to the process.

The good news is that the ordeal will not be repeated for me for at least four years. The clerks gave us a piece of paper that we can use to resist being recalled by the state for that period. It even protects against federal court jury calls which may come because “the state and federal systems are not integrated.” No surprise there.

So, fine, I will state for the record now that if called after the four- year period ends, I will not serve again. Lock me up if you want, but at this late stage of my life, I am not going to give the courts any more of my time under a system that provides little or no respect for me as a citizen. They can do better if they try. I, for one, am done.